Dreams are already starting to come true for the kid from Hilo.
Former ‘Iolani standout JJ Mandaquit was named to the U.S. national U16 team on Thursday following a week of training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. USA Basketball made the announcement, culling the team from a group of 18 finalists.
“I found out this morning. After I got my uniform for picture-taking, I took a picture of the back of it with my name on it and sent it to my parents,” said Mandaquit, who was born and raised in Hilo.
The squad departs on Friday to play in the FIBA Men’s U16 Americas Championship June 5-11 in Merida, Mexico. The USA U16 team is in Group A with Argentina, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
In addition to Mandaquit, the roster is comprised of Cameron Boozer, Cayden Boozer, AJ Dybantsa, Isiah Harwell, Caleb Holt, Brandon McCoy, Jalen Montonati, Koa Peat, Darryn Peterson, Jayden Quaintance and Tyran Stokes. Sharman White of Pace Academy is the head coach, assisted by Scott Fitch (Fairport High School) and Chet Mason (Brush High School).
“I’ve been fortunate to have played against most of my teammates before so I have a good idea of how they play but now teaming up with them it makes the game a lot easier. They’re so big and athletic, it’s almost not fair sometimes how good they are. The team is built with great shooting and athleticism so for me as a point guard I have so many options. I like throwing lobs and everyone on the team can finish above the rim so that’s the most fun thing for me. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of my teammates are first-round picks in the NBA when they enter the draft,” Mandaquit said.
The top four teams in the Americas Championship will advanced to the 2024 FIBA U17 Men’s World Cup in Turkey.
The USA is 37-0 all-time at the competition with seven consecutive gold medals.
Back in Hilo, there is a buzz. Mandaquit won’t return for a few more weeks, but one of the original Hawaii hotbed hoop towns has its first national team member.
“It’s a bit overwhelming emotionally. It’s always been a goal of mine to represent the USA and for me to get this opportunity to not only play for our country, but the state of Hawaii and my hometown of Hilo gives me a since of pride and a drive to dig even deeper to make everyone proud,” Mandaquit said. “I hope that when other kids from Hilo or the state of Hawaii see that, it’ll inspire them to know dreams can come true and if you put in the work you can accomplish your goals.”
The Mandaquit family is visiting home while JJ heads to Mexico. The phone has been busy for Mandaquit’s father, Jason.
“Media, college coaches, former coaches, family. Just everybody, man. I’ve been on the phone probably the past hour-and-a-half,” he said.
Coming off the heels of Hawaii’s scholarship offer to former ‘Iolani guard Aaron Claytor, the effect is a mixed bag of emotions for Raider fans. Claytor and his family moved to California after his sophomore year. He enrolled at Salesian Academy and had a superb junior season.
“We’re real proud of those guys. Aaron was the player of the year in his league. From what I’ve seen and heard, he’s really matured his game as a true point guard, taking care of the ball, making good decisions, hitting shots, always a good on-ball defender with his length and IQ,” ‘Iolani coach Ryan Hirata said. “The fact that he caught the eye of UH and schools on the West Coast and East Coast, he’s doing very well.”
Mandaquit and his family moved from Hilo when he and sister Jaety began attending ‘Iolani. They departed after his freshman year when he got an opportunity to attend Real Salt Lake Academy in Utah.
“I remember when JJ was a sixth grader, played intermediate in seven grade with his huge size-13 feet,” Hirata recalled. “He was going to grow into that. Eighth grade was COVID and he went to play with Sons of Hawaii (a club team) and made a name for himself in Arizona. Pupu (Sepulona), Mana (Lau Kong), Shancin (Revuelto) were on that team. He came back and his coordination was incredible.”
Being late-born, Mandaquit opted to stay in his natural grade level rather than reclassify at any point before high school.
“That’s the most amazing thing to me. He hasn’t even peaked,” Hirata said.
The ascent of Hawaii prep basketball talent includes former Maryknoll center Sage Tolentino, now at Cincinnati. Former All-State player of the year Tolu Smith of Kahuku earned All-SEC first-team honors this year at Mississippi State.
Two more former Maryknoll players, Justice Sueing and Brian Washington, went on to play collegiate ball. Sueing averaged 15 points per game this season at Ohio State, while Washington went to Cal State Bakersfield. Sueing and Washington moved to the mainland after their freshman years as Spartans.
It begs the question, is it necessary to move away from the islands to get the attention of college recruiters and national-team scouts?
“JJ would have gotten the opportunity even at ‘Iolani,” Jason Mandaquit said. “The possibility of us moving was there when he was in eighth grade.”
That summer before freshman year, Mandaquit was at a camp in Portland, Ore., when USA Basketball officials took notice. In his case, moving with his family was a key ingredient, maybe the most crucial.
“One thing we decided is we would stay together as a family and it had to work for both kids,” Jason Mandaquit said. “Family is everything in Hawaii, especially for us. It was hard for us to leave that behind, but the four of us together, we can get through anything.”
While the world has plenty of small-town talent went on to thrive in the NBA — from French Lick, Ind.’s Larry Bird to Austin Reaves, from an Arkansas town of 2,000 people — Mandaquit doesn’t regret leaving his home state.
“It’s been a huge difference. A huge difference. I had great players to go against in practice everyday, and the coaches at RSL made the practices very challenging. We also rep a lot of shooting that gave me a lot more confidence in my shot. The fact that our program plays a national schedule I got to play some of the best talent in the country,” Mandaquit said.
It’s actually five now. Baby brother Jayzn was born five months ago.
“Two weeks after committing to RSL, we found out my wife was pregnant,” Jason Mandaquit said. “I don’t plan on him beating me one-on-one until he’s in high school. Jaety and JJ adore their baby brother.”
That means big sister and big brother have mastered the art of changing diapers.
“They help out a lot,” their father said.
Mandaquit’s work on and off the court has transformed his 6-foot-1 frame, adding 15 pounds of muscle since his freshman year at ‘Iolani. He still views his life as blessed.
“I’m very thankful for my family and all their support and sacrifices. All of my coaches throughout the years who’ve helped to shape me into the athlete and person I am today,” he said. “My biggest advice to other athletes trust the process, run your own race at your own pace and surround yourself with good people.”